Revisiting the Walpole Prison Solitary Confinement Study (WPSCS): A Content Analysis of the Studies Citing Grassian (1983)

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Psychology Public Policy and Law

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In the last decade, scholars have expressed growing concerns about the credibility of some studies in the biomedical and social sciences domains that are broadly regarded as classics, that is, studies that are widely cited as the definitive answer on a topic and are in the public interest. In the current investigation, we directed our attention toward one such classic—the Walpole Prison Solitary Confinement Study (WPSCS)—which reported that inmates placed in prison solitary confinement suffered traumatic psychological damage (Grassian, 1983). Our survey of the peer-reviewed literature referencing the WPSCS from 1983 to 2017 confirmed that a very large proportion (i.e., 81%) of articles cited the study without any discussion of its fatal methodological limitations (e.g., response bias confounds, no comparison group). The number of uncritical articles, moreover, has increased over time despite the fact that 30 years ago the first criticisms of the study appeared and have continued to do so. We offer several reasons from the cognitive psychological literature as to why the WPSCS has been viewed favorably. Lastly, we discuss how the WPSCS may have diverted attention away from managing prisons in a humane fashion and provide recommendations for reducing reporting biases in the academic literature. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2020 APA, all rights reserved)


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